By Nanae Chrono
Published by TOKYOPOP, 192 pp.
Rating: T (13+)
Kokonose Mutsu is the “ninth successor” of a family of ogres who, according to legend, were long ago banished from their home island by a young hero named Momotaro. This tale, passed from generation to generation in the Mutsu family, describes how, with the help of his three companions (a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant), Momotaro defeated the ogres, claiming back the treasure stolen from his people. The “treasure” as Kokonose understands it is actually the island itself, and as Momo Tama begins, Kokonose is infiltrating an island-bound ship on a mission to reclaim his family’s home. The ship, as it turns out, is filled with a diverse group of “students” who have been plucked from their lives without explanation. They are being transported to the island’s military school where they will be taught by a group of eccentric instructors (including the descendants of the original Momotaro and his companions) to defeat the ogres who still remain.
Though he initially represents himself as just another of the group, Kokonose does not attempt to keep his mission secret for long, and his identity is revealed in spectacular fashion at a dinner held to greet new students. Surprisingly, he is permitted to remain as a student at the school despite the fact that he has openly declared his intention to overthrow the current Momotaro. As Kokonose and the other students prepare to begin their training and the volume winds to a close, it becomes increasingly clear that both the island and its inhabitants are hiding some very dangerous and powerful secrets.
In typical manga fashion, Momo Tama hits the ground running, but the minimal exposition is not quite enough to carry it, and it takes quite a while for things to solidify enough to make sense. The second half of the book is much easier to follow, however, and though the end of the volume leaves a great deal unexplained, the stage is effectively set to draw readers into the next installment.
Interestingly, the promotional material for the volume highlights the series’ comedy, describing it as, “…the hilarious adventures of a boy who just might make you die laughing!” While there is plenty of humor to be found in Momo Tama, what has been presented so far suggests that it has much more to offer than laughs. The first volume introduces an intriguing mix of fantasy, action, suspense, and genuine whimsy that is really quite delightful once it finally begins to come together.
The legend passed down by both the Mutsu clan and Momotaro’s menagerie is notably short on detail, but what is there is tantalizingly odd. Besides the fact that Momotaro’s “army” apparently consisted of three fairly small animals (whose descendants, by the way, are inexplicably human), the story also tells us that Momotaro was a foundling born from a peach, and that he recruited his tiny army by offering them sweet dumplings cooked up by his adoptive mother.
The present-day story is not any less idiosyncratic, but quite a bit more sinister. Alongside the goofy premise (and a predilection for bunnies) exists a steady sense of true danger. For example, there is a moment tucked into the middle of a silly dorm scene near the end of the volume in which a second-year student confides that the island is “serious trouble” and that some of the new students will undoubtedly be killed. This short scene is actually quite chilling and there are moments like that throughout the volume, ensuring that the story never falls too far into pure fancy.
This is not to suggest that TOKYOPOP’s promotional material is wrong. Kokonose, though only nine years old, speaks in a pompous, excessively cerebral manner reminiscent of Brain, the lab mouse bent on world domination in Warner Brothers’ Animaniacs cartoons. Both his self-important behavior and his absurdly oversized clothing are obviously meant to provide humor (and they do), yet he is presented so honestly in all his ridiculousness that he somehow manages to exude a kind of dignity. He is arrogant, manipulative, kind when it is least expected, and occasionally struck with a childlike wonder that belies his grown-up rhetoric.
What promises to be the real charm of Momo Tama, however, is its supporting characters, particularly the “dog,” Kouichirou Yamato, whose exuberant sincerity fills the page with sunshine, and the likable nerd, Mamoru Kashii, whom Kokonose latches on to early on in the story. With so much going on, these characters’ stories have barely begun, but mangaka Nanae Chrono defines them masterfully from the start, surrounding the over-the-top Kokonose with a rich set of more nuanced players to interact with.
Chrono’s art is crisp and attractive with just the right amount of detail, able to portray both the real and the ridiculous with ease. Here, too, the characters are particularly well-defined, which is a great asset in a story with as many characters as this one has.
Despite a somewhat confusing start, Momo Tama‘s first volume ends strong, and with its fun cast of characters and intriguing setup, it looks to be a series worth following.
Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at PopCultureShock.